Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Homelessness: Tackle it on the front end

by James E. Causey

September 17, 2013

Still don't think Milwaukee's homeless crisis is worth paying attention to? Well, let's look at the numbers.

Joe Volk, chief executive officer of Community Advocates, helped me do the math. It costs taxpayers more to house a family in a shelter than it does for the family to stay in its own apartment with some assistance.

If a mother and child rent a one-bedroom apartment at $500 per month, and she was only able to come up with $400 in a particular month, it would still be cheaper for the city, county or state to offer assistance for that $100 deficit than it would for that mother to lose her apartment.

Why?

It costs $80 to $100 a night to support them in a family shelter and up to $30 a day for a single adult in a shelter. "When you factor in a person losing their furniture, kids missing school and people's lives being turned upside down, it's just better to keep them in their apartment in the first place," Volk said.

Three years ago, Milwaukee made a commitment to end homelessness in 10 years, thanks to government stimulus dollars and Housing and Urban Development grants, which adequately funded shelters and helped people to stay in their homes if they fell behind in their mortgage or rent. The funding worked, and evictions were down even though the nation was going through a recession.

"It would have been much worse if it wasn't for the funding," Volk said.

Federal stimulus dollars ran out at the end of 2012, and so far this year, Milwaukee has been hit with $585,000 in cuts in core federal funding for the city's emergency shelter services and $500,000 in HUD funds.

On Tuesday, a U.S. Census Bureau report showed that 21.8% of our nation's children and 15% of the population overall are impoverished. However, the federal government continues to cut services and assistance to help the most vulnerable. Poverty remained largely unchanged. Blacks continued to suffer the highest rates of poverty at 27.2%, Hispanics 25.6%, Asian-Americans 11.7% and whites 9.7%.

In Milwaukee, the number of people in need of emergency housing has gone up 95% since 2007, and with limited dollars, shelters soon will be forced to do more with less and that could mean turning away people or offering bare-bones services.

In my Sunday column, I tried to put a face on the crisis by telling the story of David Baker, who panhandles at N. Sherman Blvd. and W. Lisbon Ave. daily. I received more than 300 emails, online responses and Facebook comments on that column. There was plenty that people wanted to say and a lot of finger-pointing.

Those on the left blamed the right and vice versa. Some blamed Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele, Gov. Scott Walker and even President Barack Obama. Regardless of where we point the finger, we have a problem that is reaching epidemic proportions, so leaders and the community at large need to come together to address it.

A January count put the number of homeless in Milwaukee at 1,500 a night, but officials working with that population say the number is closer to 3,000. I know the numbers are high because I see them. On my way to the gym in the morning, I see men with garbage bags on their backs stuffed with aluminum cans to take in for recycling. I see the people on the side of the roads begging for change with signs: "Will Work For Food." I see them downtown during the lunch rush.

Poverty and homelessness are complicated. We need more drug and alcohol treatment facilities in neighborhoods with the greatest needs. There's a problem when you can find liquor in your neighborhood easier than you can find a counseling center or a full-service grocery store.

Volk said cities such as Columbus, Ohio — which uses wrap-around services to address the homeless mental health, addictions, employment — and Minneapolis have been able to keep their homeless populations from spiking even in the most difficult times because of increased financial support from the state. Milwaukee needs that commitment from state officials.

We also need more people to care about this population. One commenter at JSOnline.com had this to say about the homeless: "Drop the addiction. Get the McJob. Get off the streets. Then go to college."

The "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" philosophy only works if a person has straps. When you're homeless, you probably don't even have shoes.

We need a unified effort to provide the straps, and it starts with our political leaders.

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